The human brain cannot deliberately concentrate on two separate objects or ideas, no matter how dissimilar, no matter how remote, without eventually forming a connection between them. According to his own story, Isaac Newton conceived of universal gravitation when he observed an apple falling and, at the same time, noticed the moon in the sky. These random simultaneous images inspired him to speculate on whether the same laws governed the falling apple and the moon orbiting the earth. This, in turn, led him to develop the laws of mechanics and establish mathematical analysis and modeling as the principal foundations of science and engineering. The same process can help you to get the ideas you need in the business world. James Lavoie and Joseph Marino, co-founders of Rite-Solutions, did just that when they needed an employee suggestion system that could harvest ideas from everyone in the company, including engineers, accountants, salespeople, marketing people, and all administrative staff.
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The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up. Every one of us. As children we accepted all things equally. We embraced all kinds of outlandish possibilities for all kinds of things. When we were children, we knew a box was much more than a container. A box could be a fort, a car, a tank, a cave, a house, something to draw on, and even a space helmet.
Our imaginations were not structured according to some existing concept or category. We did not strive to eliminate possibilities; we strove to expand them. We were all amazingly creative and always filled with the joy of exploring different ways of thinking. And then something happened to us: we went to school. We were not taught how to think; we were taught to reproduce what past thinkers thought.
When confronted with a problem, we were taught to analytically select the most promising approach based on history, excluding all other approaches, and then to work logically in a carefully defined direction toward a solution.
Instead of being taught to look for possibilities, we were taught to look for ways to exclude them. Consider a child building something with a Lego construction set. She can build all kinds of structures, but there are clear, inherent constraints on the design of objects that can be made with the set. They cannot be put together any which way: they will not stay together if unbalanced and gravity pulls them apart. If the only constraint were to "make something out of plastic," and the child had at her disposal every method of melting and molding plastic, the currently possible Lego constructions would be only a tiny fraction of the possible products and would make the Lego constructions look contrived, not the result of motivation, when compared to her other products.
With Legos it is the constraints inherent in the design that limit what can be built. With us, it is the thinking patterns that formal education has firmly wired in our brains that limit our imagination and inventiveness.
Our mental patterns enable us to simplify the assimilation of complex data. These patterns let us rapidly and accurately perform routine tasks such as driving an automobile or doing our jobs.
Habitual pattern recognition provides us with instant interpretations and permits us to react quickly to our environment. When someone asks you, "What is six times six? If a man is born in and dies in , we know immediately that the man was twenty.
Though pattern recognition simplifies the complexities of life, it also makes it hard for us to come up with new ideas and creative solutions to problems, especially when confronted with unusual data. This is why we so often fail when confronted with a new problem that is similar to past experiences only superficially, and that is different from previously encountered problems in its deep structure.
Interpreting such a problem through the prism of past experience will, by definition, lead the thinker astray. For example, the man in the above example died at age forty-nine, not twenty. In this case, is the number of the hospital room where he was born, and is that of the room where he died.
In the following thought experiment, which taxi is out of order? See if you can solve it before you continue reading. One of the hallmarks of a creative thinker is the ability to tolerate ambiguity, dissonance, inconsistency, and things out of place.
Creative thinkers will look at problems many different ways and will examine all the variables involved, searching for the unexpected.
For example, in the taxi problem, the letters A,B, and C are also considered part of the whole and not as separate labels. To solve the problem, move taxi C to the front of the line of letters to spell cab. Our minds are marvelous pattern-recognition machines. We look at the illustration below, and our brains immediately recognize a pattern: we see the word optical.
When we see something, we immediately decide what it is and move on without much thought. Notice that once we recognize the word optical, we fail to recognize the word illusion. The more accustomed we are to reading a word as a stand-alone word with one meaning, the more difficult it is for us to recognize anything new or different about it. Namely, it is either optical or not optical. We do not pay attention to the background shapes. This is a standard aspect of reading. As a result, experts in "the standard of anything" may be those least qualified when it comes to developing or creating anything new.
Once we think we know what works or can be done, it becomes hard for us to consider alternative ideas. When confronted with a truly original idea, we experience a kind of conceptual inertia comparable to the physical law of inertia, which states that objects resist change; an object at rest remains so, and an object in motion continues in the same direction unless stopped by some force. Just as physical objects resist change, ideas at rest resist change; and ideas in motion continue in the same direction until stopped.
Consequently, when people develop new ideas, these new ideas tend to resemble old ones; new ideas do not move much beyond what exists. When Univac invented the computer, the company refused to talk to businesspeople who inquired about it, because, they said, the computer was invented for scientists and had absolutely no business applications.
Then along came IBM, who captured the market. Next the experts at IBM, including its CEO, said that they believed, based on their expertise in the computer market, there was virtually no market for the personal computer. In fact, their market research indicated that no more than five or six people in the entire world had need of a personal computer. Much of what is taught to MBA candidates is aimed at reducing ambiguity and dissonance to promote predictability and order in the corporation.
Yet if these rules had always applied to businesses, we would not have disposable razors, fast-food restaurants, copier machines, personal computers, affordable automobiles, FedEx, microwaves, Wal-Mart, or even an Internet. Even when we actively seek information to test our ideas to see if we are right, we usually ignore paths that might lead us to discover alternatives.
This is because educators discouraged us from looking for alternatives to the prevailing wisdom. Following is an interesting experiment, originally conducted by the British psychologist Peter Wason, that demonstrates our tendency not to seek alternatives.
Wason would present subjects with the following triad of three numbers in sequence. The subjects could ask as many questions as they wished without penalty. He found that almost invariably people would initially offer the numbers "4, 6, 8" or "20, 22, 24" or some similar sequence. And Wason would say, yes, that is an example of the number rule. Then they would offer something like "32, 34, 36" or "50, 52, 54" and so on — all numbers increasing by two.
After a few tries, and getting affirmative answers each time, they would become confident that the rule involved numbers increasing by two, without exploring alternative possibilities.
Actually, the rule Wason was looking for is much simpler — it entails numbers merely increasing. Examples of valid sequences could be "1, 2, 3" or "10, 20, 40" or ", , 10, All the subjects would have had to do was offer Wason a sequence like "1, 2, 3" to test it, and it would have been affirmed. Or subjects could have thrown out any series of numbers — for example, "5, 4, 3" — to see if this elicited a positive or negative answer. And that information would have told them a lot about whether their guess about the rule was correct.
The profound discovery Wason made was that most people process the same information over and over until proven wrong, without searching for alternatives, even when there is no penalty for asking questions that give them a negative answer. Incredibly, in his hundreds of experiments, he never had an instance in which someone spontaneously offered an alternative hypothesis to find out if it were true. Education changes that.
Education changes the cathedral of your mind into a long hall with doors on the sides that lead to private rooms segregated from the main assembly. One room is labeled "biology," one room is labeled "electronics," one room is labeled "business," one room is for religion, one is for agriculture, one is for math, and so on. The more education people have, the more private rooms and boxes they have, and the more specialized their expertise becomes — and the more limited their imagination becomes.
I sometimes think this is why the person who knows more, sees less; and the person who knows less, sees more. Maybe this is why it took a child to invent the television. Twelve-year-old Philo Farnsworth was tilling a potato field back and forth with a horse-drawn harrow in Rigby, Idaho, while thinking about what his chemistry teacher had taught him about the electron and electricity.
Philo conceptually blended tilling a potato field with the attributes of electronic beams and realized that an electron beam could scan images the same way farmers till a field — row by row — or the same way a person reads a book, line by line. Interestingly, the first image ever transmitted was a dollar sign. Amazingly, this was , and a child conceived the idea of television while the mind-sets of thousands of electronic experts prevented them from looking at the same information they had always looked at and seeing something different.
Leonardo, a polymath, was not allowed to attend a university, because he was born out of wedlock. Because of his lack of a formal education, his mind was like a cathedral with a long hall and no separate rooms. He enjoyed fluidity of thought, as his concepts, thoughts, and ideas intermixed and danced with each other.
His mind integrated information instead of segregating it. This is why he was polymathic. He created breakthroughs in art, science, engineering, military science, invention, and medicine. To solve the problem, you have to change the way you look at it by turning it upside down, with the boxes to the left and the 1 to the right.
Then take the rightmost pick from the leftmost box and move it over the 1 to form a T. In the middle box, raise the bottom pick to the middle of the box to form an A. You now have "CAT. These are jumbled letters, not words, yet our minds see them as words. How is this possible? How do our minds do this? Think of your mind as a bowl of butter with a surface that is perfectly flat.
Imagine gently pouring hot water on the butter from a teaspoon and then gently tipping the bowl so that it runs off. After many repetitions of this process, the surface of the butter will self-organize into ruts, indentations, channels, and grooves. New water will automatically flow into the existing grooves. After a while, it will take only a tiny bit of water to activate an entire channel.
New information automatically flows into the preformed grooves.
How to put your imagination to work and spark creative ideas
Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work